In two hours of unsworn testimony Monday, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl called walking off his remote outpost in Afghanistan “a horrible mistake.” He has already pleaded guilty to desertion and faces the prospect of life in prison during the sentencing phase of his court-martial, which continues on Fort Bragg. Bergdahl also testified about his brutal treatment while a prisoner for five years under the Taliban, which picked him up not long after he left his post.
Whatever Bergdahl’s fate, his trial may yet leave unanswered one of the more pressing questions in his story: Why did the Army take in the troubled recruit in the first place? He had washed out of the Coast Guard after only three weeks. To even a layperson, his background would not have seemed like one that made him ready to tackle the stress of places like Afghanistan or Iraq. That should have been even more apparent to the Army. As Time magazine asked, “If he couldn’t tend to the coasts, why’d the Army think he could handle the Taliban?”
The Coast Guard has an undeserved reputation as being easy duty. For certain, the training in its boot camp is not easy. The dramatic circumstances of Bergdahl’s failing to complete the training is not so much evidence that he could not handle an easy entry process, but that he was probably not a good candidate for military service, period. The Coast Guard classified his exit during training as an “uncharacterized discharge” — and importantly not a psychological discharge, which would have triggered a mental health evaluation if he tried to join another branch. It is unclear why the discharge was coded in that way, especially since a Coast Guard psychiatrist recommended an evaluation if Bergdahl tried to reenlist. The service diagnosed him with “adjustment disorder with depression.”
The details of Bergdahl’s break with the branch, which were cobbled together for the 2016 podcast “Serial,” present a much more troubling picture. The podcast includes interviews from several people who served with or who knew Bergdahl, as well as audio of Bergdahl himself from an interview he gave to filmmaker Mark Boal. Men who were in the Coast Guard boot camp at Cape May, New Jersey, with Bergdahl describe the cold February night in 2006 when he broke down. They say he did not respond when the recruits were counting off for the night. He was discovered in the bathroom.
“We go running back and, uh, go running into the head,” John Raffa told “Serial” interviewer Sarah Koenig. “And there he was. He, um...he had bloodied himself pretty good. Uh, I'm...we were never sure exactly how he did it, but there was quite a bit of blood. There was some blood on the wall, uh, blood on the mirrors, blood on the...on the...the sink of the counter-top area. Um, and he was bleeding from his face. There was, you know, blood on his hands. It looked like he had kind of smashed his face into the mirror. Um...and he was huddled up crying. He was...he was kind of balled up.”
Bergdahl was weeping uncontrollably. The podcast reports that Raffa and others who knew Bergdahl were surprised when they realized he was the soldier captured by the Taliban. Raffa said simply, “He should not have gone to another branch.”
How Bergdahl wound up there may amount to math, more than anything else. In 2008, when he enlisted, the Army was trying to maintain recruiting goals as the country’s interest waned in two wars that were dragging on. Bergdahl was among the 20 percent of potential recruits to whom the Army granted waivers so they could join. He walked away from his post in Afghanistan the very next year.
Then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl interviewed Bergdahl for the Army’s formal investigation and said the recruit had joined the Coast Guard for adventure and to save lives.
“He became overwhelmed and then found himself in the hospital,” Dahl said. “He wasn’t ready for it.”
Bergdahl had similarly heroic goals when he enlisted in the Army.
“I wanted to be World War II soldier,” he told Boal, the filmmaker. “I wanted to be, you know, 1800s soldier. You know, I wanted to be a samurai soldier, a fighter, warrior.”
Instead, he wound up at a remote outpost of dubious strategic value, while his mind turned inward and against his command.
He wasn’t ready for it, and the military should have known.
©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.